by Kaylee Hultgren | November 24, 2009

M&C's Kaylee Hultgren traveled to the Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club, on the Gulf Coast near Tampa, to take part in Florida Encounter, the annual trade show for meeting planners sponsored by Visit Florida, Nov. 15-17. For a sense of the value the event holds for attendees, Hultgren talked with Sharon Hopkins, CMP, director of business development for the Roswell, Ga.-based LPGA Tournament Owners Association. Here's what Hopkins had to say about her experience.

M&C: What brought you to Florida Encounter?

Hopkins: I'm looking at holding our annual 2010 meeting in Florida. I've done a lot of site inspections on my own throughout the state, but it's a lot easier to start narrowing down properties here at the show. So many new hotels have opened in the last few years. I wanted to meet the staff and get an overview of the hotels.

M&C: How important are the relationships you develop with suppliers at the show?
Typically, when I meet a salesperson at a property, I make sure the relationship is there with the first point of contact. I'd say that 95 percent of the time, if it’s not there, I won't go to the property. If a good impression wasn't made, I’ll cross the hotel off the list.

M&C: Why is that?

Hopkins: Because the relationship you have with salespeople will carry through to contract negotiations, preplanning and the actual on-site meeting. If they are good at what they do, perceptive and able to make sure you're happy, they will continue to do that even when the job is done.

M&C: Have you ever chosen a property without having the benefit of that relationship?

Hopkins: In the past, whenever we just went for it, we had a bad experience. When I first started out, I second-guessed myself. But the two times I did that, I realized that I should have trusted my gut instinct. A couple of weeks ago I had a great experience at a hotel in San Diego. Every single day of the meeting, the same person was present, even though technically it wasn't his job to be there. Now I will tell other planners to go there. That stamp of approval from someone you know is important.

M&C: What was your favorite part of Florida Encounter?
Hopkins: The dine-around in Dunedin. It gave us the opportunity to spend time with whomever we wanted to, and to make friends with others. And it was nice that each attendee was given vouchers for $75 to spend at the participating restaurants, bars and shops.

M&C: Do you plan on attending next year?
Hopkins: Honestly, I won't be there next year, since I tend not to go to things that I don't have an immediate need for. Plus, next year we’ll be back on the West Coast. My association is different than most, though, since I have to wait until the LPGA tour schedule comes out. Every tournament owner is a member of our association, which means that I have to book our meeting around the tournament dates. On top of that, I have to juggle the schedules of critical people who need to be there. Even at Florida Encounter, I only knew that our 2010 meeting would occur in October or November. However, other planners may not have so many factors to work around.

M&C: Did you find the appointment system useful for meeting with suppliers?
Hopkins: The advantage to an appointment-based system is that you can map your day out. You know where you are, and it keeps you on schedule. It's the only way we could fit in 30 appointments in a day and a half. If we were left to our own devices, we might find one person and sit there half a day and talk. It maximizes the number of suppliers we get to see -- and the number of planners they get to see.

M&C: What does your association look for in a venue?
Hopkins: Both the hotel and destination are very important.  Because of the nature of the golf business, and the fact that our members consist of LPGA tournament owners, I have personally gotten to know everyone that attends our meetings. I make sure that I stay very in tune with the type of property that is going to offer them the best experience possible. I typically choose a hotel with golf on site, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be on the property. If the hotel and staff is something special, and the right fit, we would make it work. Hotels with green initiatives have moved to the top of the list as well.

M&C: I imagine golf is a crucial part of the program.
Hopkins: Actually, despite the fact that they’re LPGA tournament owners, not all of them like to golf. But it’s good for our exhibitors and the networking aspect of our meeting. For the golf pairings, I make sure to mix the group with both tournament representatives and exhibitors. This gives ample opportunity outside of the trade show area to build relationships with the tournament folks. Solid relationships have always been a staple in the golf world, and are becoming even more important in the current economic climate.